Sunday, November 9, 2008

After 40 years, teacher still has passion for piano


By Chuck Rupnow
Leader-Telegram staff

PLUM CITY - Piano teacher Luella Dettling looked into the eyes of her student and asked: "Remember what flat tires do?"

Adam Heath, 9, a fourth-grader at Ave Maria Academy in Plum City replied: "They go down."

"That's it. Now tackle it. Tackle it," Dettling said, smiling at the boy as he worked his way through a new song.

The scene - Dettling taking notes and giving positive advice while sitting next to a student on a piano bench - has not changed in more than 40 years.

Dettling, 80, has given private lessons at her home in rural Maiden Rock and other locations for decades, while also playing organ and piano at churches for Sunday services, weddings and funeral services. Overall, she's been playing piano about 73 years.

"I enjoy it. I enjoy music and it's a joy just to be able to play, so I do as much as I can," Dettling said. "I said to one lady that if I didn't have my music, I'm not sure if I'd be good for anything.

"I don't know how long I'll be able to continue. Only the Lord knows," she added in her humble tone. "The Lord gives us each something. We all need something that gives us that extra little joy."

Dettling gives lessons at the school once a week, otherwise giving them at her home.

She's given lessons to two generations of some families.

Dettling isn't sure exactly when she started giving lessons, saying it was in the 1960s.

"I had played for a program in the local school and a lady came up to me and asked if I would teach her daughter. I said, 'Oh, I don't know about that.' I hadn't done that. I just said I would try, and I kept going."

Dettling started playing piano around age 7, receiving lessons at her Stockholm area farm from her mother, Esther Larson. Larson had attended MacPhail Center for Music, a Minneapolis music conservatory founded in 1907 by William MacPhail.

"She did a lot of playing, so I would watch her and listen to her," Dettling said of her mother. "It just evolved because there was always music at our house. We didn't have television. We played games or sang around the piano - kind of a different era than we have now."

Larson also taught Dettling's brothers, Lowell Larson, 83, of La Crosse, and Burton Larson, 77, of Ellsworth, to play piano.

"She got them going too, but I guess it was harder for them because they were outside more with the farming chores," Dettling said.

Dettling started playing for weddings when she was 17, using a pump organ on several occasions. "I just about wore myself out doing that," she said.

She has played for scores of weddings and funerals over the years and has programs from the events to prove it.

She drew praise as an accompanist from singer Kelly Johnson of rural Pepin.

"She's very good, and she just is always available," said Johnson, whose three children have taken piano lessons from Dettling. "She's so flexible; she'll play anything, try anything. Usually, when she's playing for me she's not done that song before, but she's game to try it."

Dettling plays Sundays at two Maiden Rock area churches, 8:15 a.m. at Maiden Rock Methodist church and again at 10:30 a.m. at Lund Mission Covenant Church.

"She plays pretty much every Sunday and also for any special occasion; anything that we need her for," said Lund Mission Pastor Greg Satterberg. "She is a very good pianist and organist, a very gifted person who has been willing to adjust her schedule to help out whenever needed."

Dettling started teaching at the school about 19 years ago. She now has about six individual students and teaches a music theory class.

"The kids just love her," said Mary E. Wieser, full-time volunteer at preschool through fourth-grade Ave Maria school. "She's very supportive of the school and a part of the family here."

On one recent morning, Dettling sat patiently on the bench with Brendan Swancutt, 11, a home-schooled student from Plum City who takes piano lessons at Ave Maria. "You know this, you know it. You can do it, you can do it. Do what it says and tell me what you are doing," she told him encouragingly.

"I am just amazed at times how the children catch on. It really is quite a thrill at times when they get it. I just plain enjoy it.

"With playing piano it's something that can go on a lifetime and you can also give service to others," she said. "Playing is such a joy, and to see the younger ones learning, well, that's a joy too."

Rupnow can be reached at 830-5831, 800-236-7077 or

Post a Comment